Guy Dresser | Royal Canoe Club - The International Canoe Federation has voted to drop mens K2 (kayak pairs) 200m sprint racing from the Olympic programme to make way for a new women’s canoe event.
Amid what insiders describe as ‘chaotic scenes’, the shock vote at an ICF Board Meeting in Peru in November followed a long and heated debate over how to admit the women’s canoe singles 200m discipline into the Olympic programme. The vote followed a long push by campaigners to achieve greater gender equity in the sport.
At the same meeting, it was decided to drop men’s canoe doubles from the slalom programme in favour of women’s canoe singles. Neither decision, both of which take effect from the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, has been formally announced by the ICF, however.
The reason for the changes is that the sport is unbalanced in gender terms at the Games – in London there were 16 Olympic medal competitions in canoe-kayak sprint and slalom, 11 of them men’s and 5 women’s.
While dropping mens canoe doubles from slalom was not a big surprise, the decision to drop mens K2 200m, which debuted in the sprinting programme at London 2012 and saw Britain’s Jonathan Schofield and Liam Heath win a bronze medal, is likely to prove highly controversial.
Broadcasters see 200m sprint racing as key to attracting spectators to a sport which, to the general public, all looks quite similar when staged over the longer 1,000m distance.
And the introduction of 200m racing was also seen by Olympics observers as a major achievement for the ICF, representing welcome innovation in Olympic canoe/kayak after years in which there had been little change.
Kayak fans had thought mens canoe doubles (C2) 1,000m would have gone from the Olympic Games to make way for women’s canoe singles (C1) 200m. Canoe supporters, however, argued successfully that dropping one of only 3 remaining men’s canoe sprint events (C1 200m, 1,000m and C2 1,000m) from the programme would more or less kill off interest in the sport as an Olympic discipline. Men’s C2 500m had already gone, to make way for the women’s K1 (kayak singles) 200m event in London.
Richard Pettit, media relations manager at the ICF said: “The argument was that we are the International Canoe Federation and that if we did not find a kayak discipline to drop we might as well become the International Kayak Federation. The overriding view was that we should continue to have canoe in the Olympic programme as it’s an essential part of the sport.”
Pettit said the vote at the board meeting in Lima came after a debate that went on ‘for ages’.
National federations are divided on the changes. Some, such as Canada, have pushed hard for the introduction of women’s canoe. Others have resisted change for fear of losing events in which they’ve traditionally been strong.
For Britain, the end of both C2 slalom and K2 200m sprint is an enormous double blow since the country is highly successful at both and together the two events accounted for three medals at London 2012: gold and silver in mens’ C2 slalom and the Heath/Schofield bronze in kayak sprint.
Paul Owen, chief executive of the British Canoe Union, expressed extreme disappointment at the votes.
He said: “We’re also in the ludicrous situation that the decisions have been taken but not announced. Right now I’ve got athletes training for these events and they deserve to know.”
The ICF’s November press release concerning the admission of women’s canoe in Tokyo did not mention what sprint or slalom events would go to make way for it.
Tim Cornish, one of two African ICF board members at the meeting in Lima, said he was ‘very disappointed’ at the vote.
“There was no question that mens C2 slalom would have to go to make way for women’s C1 to equal out the gender situation,” Cornish said. “But in sprint terms, canoe events are not spectacular, not at all hotly contested like kayak races and I wouldn’t have been sorry to see canoe sprint disappear altogether. That sounds radical but bringing in 200m racing was a good spectacle and now we’re reversing that decision.”
Typographical error amended: C2 500m was dropped after 2008 and replaced in 2012 by women’s K1 200m, not women’s K2 200m as originally printed.